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The Life of Jesus - Series 9: Episode 10

Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead

| Martin Charlesworth
John 11:38-57

The second part of Jesus in Bethany where he raised Lazarus from the dead - a messianic sign right near Jerusalem with a mixed reception.

The second part of Jesus in Bethany where he raised Lazarus from the dead - a messianic sign right near Jerusalem with a mixed reception.


Welcome to Series 9 and Episode 10, it's the second half of the story of Jesus and Lazarus. This is where 'Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead'. If you were with us in the last episode, you'll remember the first half of the story which I'll go over in just a minute. We're going to be studying in John 11: 38 - 57.

Introduction and Recap

We've been seeing a big story in Series 8 and 9, as I've mentioned on many occasions previously in different episodes, the big story of Jesus leaving his home area in the north of the country of Israel, Galilee, and travelling south with great determination and purpose in order to end up in Jerusalem, in a final confrontation with the religious authorities of the Jews, which Jesus predicted would lead to his arrest, trial, death, suffering, and then his resurrection. I've told the story on a number of occasions in previous episodes, and this theme is in the back of the minds of the writers at all times. The two particular writers we've been looking at, in the last episodes in this series and the last one, are Luke and John. They're the most important writers for this section of the story of Jesus. Luke takes great trouble to build up the story step-by-step, and then John gives some remarkable additional material, bearing in mind that John almost certainly wrote after Luke. He would have had the text of Luke before him and he added in things that he knew and felt were important for the story. When we put these two strands together, we get a really interesting narrative building up. That's exactly what's happened, and is happening, in the situation we find here. After spending quite a lot of time in Luke's Gospel in Series 9, we are now moving across to John, as we did in the last episode to get the story about this man called Lazarus, who died and was subsequently raised from the dead.

As I mentioned in the last episode, and I'll say it again just for clarity here, to help you get into this particular section, the family in question were first mentioned by Luke in his narrative back in Series 8, in Luke 10: 38 - 42. We find Jesus visiting two ladies called Mary and Martha and staying in their house. There was a particular issue concerning hospitality and how that was going to be provided. Martha was getting very stressed about it, and Mary was very relaxed and listening to Jesus. That was the story that Luke told us in that short passage back there in Luke 10, when he introduced this family situation to the readers at that point. It appears that Martha and Mary were sisters who were probably unmarried; there is no reference to their parents, no reference to husbands, and no reference to children, so we may assume their parents weren't there; maybe they'd died; or something tragic had happened. Luke doesn't mention the brother. In our last episode, we realised from John's point of view, who introduces us to the same family, that there is a brother also, who is Lazarus. John comes back to this family situation and gives a much more detailed account of the subsequent event. He identifies their home as the village of Bethany, which is just a few kilometres outside Jerusalem - very close to Jerusalem - and therefore close to the capital city, the Temple, the Sanhedrin, the ruling authorities, Roman governors, military presence. That's really significant for the story, which we mentioned in the last episode.

We have Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus, and in the last episode as Jesus was travelling around in the southern part of the country, he received a message from Mary and Martha, which indicated that Lazarus was in danger of dying, was critically ill, and in fact we've subsequently found out that he did die. Jesus was requested to come quickly to Bethany, which was quite a long journey from where he was, and to heal Lazarus. We saw in the beginning of John 11, that Jesus doesn't immediately respond; he waits a few days in the district. He's in the district called Perea and he indicated he will go at the right time, and then subsequently, a few days later, he decides to travel across to Bethany and to go to the family home.

Both John and Luke indicate to us that Jesus had an affectionate relationship with this particular family, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and that's very clear at the end of the last episode, and will be very clear in this episode too. The last episode tells the story of Jesus arriving at Bethany, and by this time Lazarus had died, and he was already in the tomb. He'd been buried; he was in a tomb, probably just on the outskirts of the village. As Jesus approaches the village, the two sisters, one by one, come to Jesus before he even gets to their home. First of all, Martha comes, and then when she goes back, Mary follows. Jesus' decision to come to Bethany was a risky one, because the level of conflict with the authorities - the religious authorities - was very high, as we've seen numerous times in previous episodes. The conflict was intensifying, and there were veiled threats from the authorities; they threatened his life. When Jesus actually made the decision to go to Bethany, he was going into a risky geographical area, very close to Jerusalem. He can be spied on and he could probably be arrested quite easily there, which is why, in John 11:16, Thomas, one of the disciples, said

‘”let's go also, that we may die with him.”’

John 11:16, NIV

In other words, he could really see the risk of Jesus getting arrested if he was so close to Jerusalem. However, Jesus went, and as he stood outside the village, Mary came to him.

I'm going to re-read the final section of the passage we looked at in the last episode, as an introduction to what we are going to look at today. John 11: 32 - 37,

‘When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34“Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35Jesus wept. 36Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”’

John 11:32-37, NIV

It's a very poignant scene of deep emotion. It was the custom that mourners would gather for long periods of time in a village, or in a community, with the family, to support them. That's what we see: a group of mourners there alongside Mary, and Jesus very distressed and saddened by the death of his friend, the premature death. There's absolutely no suggestion that Lazarus was an old man; this is a premature death. He's a young man, in the prime of life almost certainly, and suddenly he's been taken away by some unknown illness. That's the background. It's quite an intense scene, and the crowd looking on will be filled with a mixture of emotions: identification with Mary and Martha, shock at losing Lazarus, and also an expectation about what Jesus might do. After all, Jesus was well-known. His miracles were well-known, even in this area, which he didn't visit very often, his miracles were talked about. What was Jesus going to do in the situation?

This was a decisive moment, and we're now going to look at it more closely. We'll look first of all at the actual moments of the miracle, verses 38 - 44,

‘Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39“Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.” 40Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”’

John 11:38-44, NIV

Background Information

Without doubt, this is one of the most dramatic moments in the ministry of Jesus. Let's think about the background, the context and significance of what actually is taking place here. Graves in those days, where people had the finance, generally speaking were prepared in advance, dug in the ground, or very often the tombs were cut out of hillsides - plenty of hills in the area. Jesus' own tomb was a pre-prepared tomb, as we'll find out when we get to the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was owned by a rich man in the area, called Joseph of Arimathea, and he donated this for Jesus and helped to lay him in the tomb himself. If you go to the city of Jerusalem today, you can go to a very famous site called the Garden Tomb, where you see an ancient tomb cut out of the side of a little hill, and you see a stone in front of it that had been cut and prepared, so that it could seal the tomb. People have wondered whether this actually was the tomb of Jesus. We've no way of knowing but it's a very good example of the sort of tombs that existed, and it tells us an interesting thing - that tombs were often sealed with a stone, and the burial customs were that burial should take place quickly. It was a very public event, and the community gathered to mourn. It was a sign of respect for the family and individual who'd died. In small village communities, virtually everybody was involved in a funeral event, and public expression of grief and weeping was extremely acceptable and commonplace. The body, generally speaking, was wrapped tightly in linen wraps, including the head, and then spices and perfumes were used in order to anoint the body, or prepare the body for burial, as a sign of respect and affection for the dead person. This public event of the burial had taken place about four days earlier, and mourners tended to still be visible in the community for days after the actual funeral event, and that's what we see here. People come out of their homes. They're excited when they hear that Jesus is coming because people in Bethany would be aware already from Jesus's previous visit, as recorded in Luke 10, that he had a particular affection for this family. He's stayed in the family home; he'd been to stay with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. 

Resurrection of Lazarus

Jesus dramatically commands them to take the stone away. That is a sign of disrespect and desecration of the tomb in normal circumstances. It's not something that you were allowed to do. Once a tomb was sealed, respect for the dead indicated that the tomb should not be disturbed, as in many cultures today in different parts of the world. You'll probably recognise that in your own culture. Tombs were to be left, not interfered with, but Jesus, after only four days, when the body would still be decomposing, commanded the stone to be removed. This indicates that he'd already known in his heart of hearts that his Father's will was that Lazarus should be raised from the dead. One of the extraordinary and miraculous things about Jesus was that he knew exactly what his Father intended, and he says in John 5:19,

‘“The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his father doing, because whatever the father does the Son also does.”’

John 5:19, NIV

This concept of seeking his Father's will in specific circumstances is implied by his statement in verse 41, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me.’

He's prayed to his Father, and he's got reassurance from his Father that at this moment, this time, the right and good thing, and the will of the Father, is that Lazarus should be raised from the dead. He commands Lazarus to come out. This raises an interesting question because Lazarus obviously comes to life in the physical sense; his spirit returns to his body at that point. That's what happens in the resurrections that Jesus performs. We'll look at a couple of examples in a minute. The spirit comes back. But how can he come out of the tomb? Can he walk out? That's not clear from the text. His legs and his arms are wrapped up. He may have come out crawling; his movements would be restricted by the grave clothes. Hence the commands to take off the grave clothes and let him go. Before the eyes of Mary, Martha and this crowd of local mourners and other interested people, Lazarus is raised from the dead. How astonishing! How amazing!

This isn't the first time that Jesus has raised people from the dead. The Gospels give us three accounts of Jesus raising people from the dead. The first, in Luke 7: 11 - 17, is the only son of a widow in a Galilean village called Nain, and if you remember the earlier episode when we looked at this, Jesus came to the village whilst the funeral procession was proceeding out of the village to the burial site. This young man was laid on the top of the funeral bier, his mother behind and Jesus came and raised him up from the dead. The second one is the daughter of a man called Jairus. Jesus went to Jairus's house, as recorded in several of the Gospels, and I'll just take Luke 8 as an example here, Jesus went into the house of Jairus and his daughter had died, and he went into the room where she was laid and said, ‘she's not dead but asleep’. He says, you'll recall, to the child, ‘“My child, get up!”’ and then her spirit returned and at once she stood up. We've seen two examples of resurrections before, being raised from the dead. The interesting thing about these three examples is they're all performed on younger people who had died prematurely. The scriptures describe the spirit coming back into the body. The biblical understanding and definition of death is not just the end of physical life but the separation of the body from the spirit, or the inner person; they separate at death. The inner person, or the spirit, lives on, but the body dies and the resurrections that Jesus performed meant that the spirit came back into the body, animated the body, made the body alive again, and that person lives. These resurrections always had a huge impact on those who saw them but they were only temporary resurrections. These people also died again, but they experienced wonderful life for many years no doubt, as a result of the great miracle that Jesus carried out.

Divided Opinion

Let's move on to the second half of the story. Let's read verses 45 - 57. This is what happened afterwards, and the story isn't so good here because there is a divided opinion.

‘Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our Temple and our nation.” 49Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” 51He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53So from that day on they plotted to take his life. 54Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples. 55When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. 56They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the Temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn't he coming to the festival at all?” 57But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.’

John 11:45-57, NIV

There's a divided opinion, as so often with Jesus. Many people believed in him as a result of what they saw, understandably, but others were hostile. They reported to the Jewish ruling authorities. I've referred in many previous episodes to this organisation called the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, 70 religious leaders made up of priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, Teachers of the Law, and chaired by the High Priest. They had the right to adjudicate in matters of religion, for the Jewish people and the Romans allowed them to continue to do that, even though they were the political rulers of Judea. The Sanhedrin had already sent out representatives to Galilee and elsewhere to watch Jesus, to interrogate him and they'd already adjudicated, at least informally, that they believed he was a false messiah - that he had come by demonic power; he was deluded and should not be followed. They were totally opposed to him but they felt very threatened by this event because it took place on the doorstep, Bethany - just a few kilometres outside Jerusalem. It wasn't a huge distance away in the north; this is right on their doorstep, a hugely dramatic event and news of it would spread like wildfire through the city of Jerusalem. They had to respond. Their response was to try and speed up the arrest and execution of Jesus. They were genuinely afraid that he'd have a popular following all over the area, and in Jerusalem, and this popular following would provoke the Romans and lead to Roman military intervention against the nation. They wanted Jesus to die for the sake of the people - in a sense to protect them from the Romans. Of course, the irony of this is: Jesus died for the people, but in a different way (as a substitute, as a sacrifice and as an atonement for them on the cross), as we shall see in subsequent episodes.

Jesus, as a result of this, moved quickly away from Bethany, from Jerusalem, from Judea, back into the area nearby where he had been working. He stayed in a remote location, as John clearly states. He doesn't want the formal conflict with the Sanhedrin and the Jewish authorities to take place until he senses that the time is right, and he wants it to take place on his own terms. We're going to see that Jesus actually did make sure that that happened when he finally entered Jerusalem in triumph with huge crowds by his side in the Triumphal Entry. We'll come to that story later. 


It's time, as we bring this episode to a conclusion, just to draw some thoughts together and make some reflections which I hope will help you. This is a truly wonderful story, as I'm sure you will feel just reading it and thinking about what happened. It's absolutely remarkable. It's a popular and well-known Christian story; something we tell to our children in our Sunday schools and at home - one of Jesus's greatest miracles.

These resurrections, as I said, were temporary resurrections, in the sense that these people who were raised from the dead, Jairus' daughter, the widow of Nain's son, Lazarus and any others who are resurrected, would ultimately die a natural death. These events are not to be confused with the event that Jesus predicts will happen, which is his own resurrection, and then the resurrection of those who believe in him at a later time. Jesus' own resurrection was of a different character to this. It was true that his body lay in the tomb; his spirit was separated from his body; and the two came together at the point of resurrection but his resurrection body was an eternal body, an indestructible body, an imperishable body and so it was a different type of resurrection. These resurrections prefigure, or point to, a greater resurrection that will take place in Jesus' body first of all, and then in the lives of those who believe in him. Physical resurrections of this type, raisings from the dead were in the minds of the Jews in the popular imagination and the current theological framework, claims to messianic authority. There were miracles that were particularly associated with the Messiah. The healing of blindness, I've mentioned on a number of occasions previously, was considered a messianic miracle but the resurrection from the dead was also in that category. This points to Jesus' messianic identity. It was a prophetic sign to the religious establishment in Jerusalem; it was a sign of his Messiahship, and also a prefiguring of his own resurrection that was to take place fairly shortly after this.

Even talking earlier in this story in the previous episode, Jesus had made the dramatic claim, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, so this event isn't just amazing from the point of view of Mary, Martha, Lazarus, their wider family and community - which it obviously was - but it was hugely significant because it was a prophetic sign right on the doorstep of the establishment, staking out Jesus' claims and giving a prophetic warning that those claims would be coming to bear upon them directly - when he entered Jerusalem publicly and formally shortly after this. In fact the crowds, as we see at the end of the story, as they prepared for the Passover festival, were wondering, is Jesus going to come? The answer is that he would eventually come at the Passover festival that was going to take place.

Let's finally think about Mary and Martha. There's one interesting and moving final point to make. Mary and Martha must have been hugely impacted by this amazing miracle, hugely grateful. They're already followers of Jesus; they already loved him. We find Mary listening attentively to his teaching the first time we meet in Luke 10 but John records in John 12, and it also appears in the other Gospels, an event that happened shortly after this, which is that Jesus came back to Bethany, had a meal in a house there and Mary took some very expensive perfume and anointed Jesus. She poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair and the whole house was filled with perfume. This is a sign of devotion; it's also a prophetic sign, indicating probably that she understood that Jesus was going to die shortly after that. Mary showed intense devotion to Jesus, as I'm sure Martha did as well, as a sign of thankfulness for this remarkable miracle that had taken place in their family - the brother Lazarus, given up for dead, suddenly restored to life. What an amazing story! It fits very well with the broader narrative of events and points towards the hugely significant events that take place in Jerusalem. Thanks for listening.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How would you live your life differently if you had been resurrected?
  • Discipleship
    1. How does the thought of eternal life impact the way you live your earthly life now?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. In the face of this amazing miracle, why did some people still not believe in Jesus as the Messiah?
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